Gun, with Occasional Music
by Jonathan Lethem
I must have crossed paths with Jonathan
Lethem when he was working at Moe’s
bookstore in Berkeley.  Certainly I tried to
deal with any employee other than
himself—who scrutinized the books I brought
in for resale, his grimaces passing aesthetic

plan of self-education for an aspiring writer,
which included seeing
Star Wars more than
twenty times, hitchhiking through the Western
US, and reading the collected works of
K. Dick (another Berkeleyite, one who made
Moe look like the man in the gray flannel
suit).  But this apprenticeship unlike anything
vetted by the Iowa Writers’ Workshop
produced one of the freshest voices in
American fiction.  The promise of quirky
early novels such as
Gun, with Occasional Music
Amnesia Moon reached equally quirky
fruition in masterworks such as
Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude.  Along the
way, Lethem has chronicled the music of the
Talking Heads and Bob Dylan, defended
plagiarism in a famous essay (which we all
hope is wholly original), and most recently
stepped into the capacious shoes of the late
David Foster Wallace as the Roy E. Disney
Professor in Creative Writing at Pomona
College.  Definitely an
E Ticket required for
that course!
judgment long
before the niceties of
price came into
Serving as
understudy to this
anti-Harold Bloom
was all part of
Lethem’s alternative
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Gun, with Occasional Music is the book Raymond
Chandler might have written if he had spent time on
Dr. Moreau’s Island along with Ken Kesey and
Philip K. Dick.  Okay, he didn’t.  So it was left for
Jonathan Lethem to step into the gap and delivery
this hard-boiled, drugged-out,
future-tripping tale of crime
and karma on the streets of

As fans of Lethem’s work have
come to learn, the borderlines
between genres are undefended
in his stories—no ID checks, no
customs agents, no big fence.  
What starts as a
noir mystery or
superhero adventure can morph
into something quite different in
the very next chapter.   Already in
this debut novel, published in 1994 shortly after the
author’s 30th birthday, he delivers a text that refuses to
fit easily into any section of the bookstore.  

Our story takes place at an undetermined date in the
future, when police functions have been taken over by
public inquisitors, but a few P.I.s—private inquisitors—
are still allowed to represent clients and do their
gumshoe trade.   Our hero Conrad Metcalf  learns in the
opening pages that his latest client, a prominent doctor,
has been murdered in a sleazy motel.  But here’s some
consolation: he soon finds a new person seeking his
services—the man who is being set up by the Inquisition
as the fall guy in the crime.   

Related Reviews
The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem
You Don't Love Me Yet by Jonathan Lethem
Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem
Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem

As is often the case with Lethem, the fantasy and sci-fi
elements in this story are woven into the background.   
The basic plot is…well, perhaps calling it realistic would
be going too far.  But no leaps into the imaginative void
are necessary to comprehend the familiar detective-tries-
to-solve-murder puzzle that sits at the center of
with Occasional Music
.   What makes Lethem so intriguing
as an author of speculative fiction is how much zany
creativity he expends on the smaller details of his
stories.  Woody Allen once contemplated making a
comedy movie in which all of the gags take place in the
background, while a serious drama occupies the
foreground of the story.   Lethem’s approach to
storytelling is somewhat akin to this topsy-turvy
formula—his tales get stranger and stranger the more
you move into the periphery of the plot.  

Readers of his
The Fortress of Solitude (still almost a
decade in the future at the time of this early effort)
encountered this when, deep into this gritty account of
life on the streets of Brooklyn, an unconventional
superhero character—a homeless man who can fly
through the air—is introduced to disrupt a narrative that
otherwise seems so true-to-life.  The same kind of
background disturbances impart a curious flavor to
Lethem’s more recent novel
Chronic City, in which the
central story of buddies in New York is juxtaposed with
a host of sci-fi sub-plots, involving everything from war
in outer space to a raging mechanical tiger.  Unlike, say,
H.G. Wells, who built his plots squarely on
impossibilities—time machines, invisible men—Lethem
keeps the main plot real-as-rain, but hides his wildest
ideas in the backdrop.

This is definitely the case with
Gun, with Occasional
.  As we follow P.I. Metcalf in his attempt to
determine who killed his client, a host of bizarre
elements begin to intrude into our view.   Evolved
animals, who can talk and work 9-to-5 jobs, show up as
minor characters.   Everyone seems to carry a karma
card, and if the balance falls to zero, bad things tend to
happen to them.  Music has replaced much of the
news.   And strange drugs are everywhere, with side
effects that would even discourage Timothy Leary from
getting his prescriptions filled.

Metcalf’s personal blend of narcotic is mostly Acceptol,
with enough Regrettol mixed in to provide a “bittersweet
edge,” and a little bit of Addictol to keep him coming
back for more.  He tends to leave out the Forgettol
completely—a private inquisitioner can’t afford to enjoy
the joys of sweet oblivion.  Even stronger mixtures are
available—although sometimes you need to get them
from the black market—and at an extreme, youf personal
recipe can do to your brain what Rotorooter does to a
blockage in your plumbing.

The blend at work in the construction of this book is
almost as strange as that employed by our detective in
his leisure hours.   Much of the fun in reading Lethem is
how well his stories work at different levels.  
Gun, with
Occasional Music
is not his best work—not until Motherless
Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude would he really show
his skill at developing compelling characters with raw
and plausible emotional lives.  And the pacing of this
novel is occasionally sluggish, with the many
interrogations of suspects and witnesses lacking the kind
of ingenuity that, say, an Agatha Christie brings to those
kinds of scenes.    Even so there is much to admire
here—especially in the dialogue, the scene-setting, and
the various phantasmagorical elements.  

And for a literary debut by an author just moving out of
his twenties, this book showed some serious bravado.  In
retrospect, we can see how it signaled the arrival of a
provocative talent, one who would help redefine the
boundaries between serious and genre fiction.  And that
would turn out to be not just a perfect role for Jonathan
Lethem, but also an appealing turnabout for the often
sluggish world of literary fiction as its parameters were
redefined in the years following the publication of this
book.  No, Lethem didn’t do that on his own—give
credit to
David Mitchell, Michael Chabon, David Foster
Wallace, Audrey Niffenegger, Mark Z. Danielewski and
others for the parts they have played in this matter—but
he, as much as anyone, raised the stakes and raked in the
chips in a game that is still very much underway.

Ted Gioia's latest book is The Jazz Standards: A
Guide to the Repertoire.
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Further Clues:

Jonathan Lethem Home Page

Interview with Jonathan Lethem by Lorin Stein from The
Paris Review

Interview with Jonathan Lethem by Ronnie Scott

"The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism" by Jonathan
Lethem from Harper's

Jonathan Lethem Q&A from The New Yorker
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